Throughout the years, Chris Bray coached up-and-coming wrestlers in the Newtown Youth Wrestling Association’s (NYWA) middle school and elementary programs. He taught young grapplers and prepared them to become strong high school competitors for nearly a decade. As it turned out, he was shaping many of them to become his team members once again, down the road.
Bray, following eight years with the youth program, took over as the head coach of Newtown High School’s wrestling team this winter and, in the process, was reacquainted with several of his former middle school team members.
The Nighthawks have moved up to fourth in the state coaches poll. The familiarity between coach and student-athlete certainly is not the only factor in the high school team’s success this season — the athletes put in plenty of practice time and hard work to improve — but it may be a big part of the reason the Nighthawks are hoping to win a South-West Conference championship this coming weekend. The SWC tourney will be held at Pomperaug High in Southbury throughout the day on Saturday, February 15.
Newtown has only two losses to Connecticut teams this winter, one to FCIAC powerhouse Danbury, the other to SWC foe New Milford. That was a 36-29 setback, one in which Bray thought some mental errors on the part of his wrestlers were the difference between winning and losing.
The Nighthawks hope to dethrone New Milford as the top dog in the SWC, and that connection Bray has with his team members could help push the Hawks to the top. It’s certainly made for a smooth road in practice throughout the campaign.
“I know what their tendencies are, what their strengths are. They know what my expectations are,” said Bray, adding that the latter is the most important of the three.
Bray’s expectations, he said, are that they give 100 percent — always. “If they give me that, I can’t ask for anything more and they will have no excuses. They understand that hard work is our key to success. What some could possibly lack in natural ability, they can more than make up for through hard work and dedication.”
Bray also stresses that the Nighthawks work as a unit. He points out that although wrestling is an individual sport there is still a strong team element. Bray says that working with teammates who have made the same sacrifices and gone through the same struggles will make the experience more enjoyable for the Hawks.
“The familiarity just makes things flow,” said Bray, quick to point out that the biggest link to success is the amount of time the grapplers put into honing their skills — in and out of season.
“That’s really the key to being a better wrestler; being as much of a year-round wrestler as you can possibly be,” Bray said.
Newtown team member Logan Walsh, one of those who was coached by Bray in the youth program, says it is of benefit to have previous instruction from Bray since he’s accustomed to techniques Bray teaches.
“It’s easier for him to coach us and for us to listen to him,” said teammate Forest Speed, another product of the NYWA under Bray’s guidance. “He’s very tough but he’s a great coach.”
Speed added that Bray teaches the wrestlers different moves to apply from the same positions on the map depending on the circumstances and opponent in a given match.
In addition to Walsh and Speed, Nighthawks who wrestled under the direction of Bray in the youth ranks are Tom and James Leuci, Ed Lovely, Luca Crudo, Matt Gonzalez, Anthony Falbo, Andy Hubina, Ryan Wagner, and Alex Stavola. Junior varsity wrestlers who also were coached by Bray prior to high school are Chris Lajoie, Gordon Walsh, and Jack Wellman.
Bray still has a link to the youth program; he sits on the board of directors for the NYWA. Bray says his responsibility is to make sure the youth program’s coaches get what they need.
Bray says he wouldn’t have gotten into coaching at the high school if not for Brian Hayes, who filled in Bray’s shoes as the head coach and middle school leader with the NYWA. Hayes, whom Bray once coached with in Danbury’s youth program, convinced him to apply and offered to take his place as the head youth coach.
“I would have struggled leaving the youth in anyone else’s hands,” said Bray, adding that the two are in frequent contact and discus how to prepare the middle school grapplers for the high school program. Bray said they share the goal of creating high school state and New England champions.
For now, Bray’s short-term goal is seeing the wrestlers he once taught the basic skills become conference champions.
Two of Bray’s high school wrestlers stay involved with their wrestling roots as well. James Leuci and Andy Hubina both referee NYWA matches. Bray thinks it’s great for them to not only earn a little spending money, but also gain a better understanding of the sport.
“I truly hope that our boys will return, to either be involved at the youth or high school level,” Bray said. “I would like to see them complete the circle. … These young men, and the kids in the youth, are the future of wrestling in Newtown.”